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Yo-Yo Ma Mines Global Musical Culture

Cellist tours Japan, U.S. in November.

Contributing Editor RW Deutsch reports:

[ Thurs., November 9, 2000 3:00 AM EST ]

When one thinks of cellist Yo-Yo Ma, the words "classical musician" come to mind. But the one thing you can't do with this musician, winner of 13 Grammy Awards, is define him in any traditional way.

This year alone, Ma has released an array of recordings. These include a second collaboration with composer Tan Dun on the soundtrack to Ang Lee's film "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" (with Asian pop star CoCo Lee), as well as his Simply Baroque II, a collection of J.S. Bach transcriptions and Boccherini concertos (RealAudio excerpt). Then there was his Appalachian Journey CD with violinist Mark O'Connor and bassist Edgar Meyer (that featured singer-songwriter James Taylor and Union Station violinist Allison Krauss). In the past two years, Ma also has released an album featuring the tango music of Astor Piazzolla and another, Hush, that was a collaboration with jazz singer Bobby McFerrin.

The breadth of his repertoire and musical interests has recently led him to create the Silk Road Project (named for the famed Asian trade route), a two-year world music, dance and visual arts festival that will tour Asia, Europe and North America beginning in 2001.

"It's a desire to understand what's going on around me," Ma said of the project. "I like to know the world we live in. The thing I do is music and I do think people express themselves musically in slightly different ways [around the world]. Music is one way into the soul of somebody."

Ma said he has long had a desire to understand world cultures, recalling an anthropology class in college during which he took a trip to Namibia and interviewed a tribe of Bushmen. From that experience, he learned that while it can be culturally dangerous to open dialogues with other people, keeping them isolated is equally perilous.

"It's important to preserve culture," Ma said. "But you can't put it in a zoo. You can't say, 'Now we have 20 recordings of this music and so it's okay for this culture to die.' I'm kind of interested in seeing how things can be a part of a general cultural currency that doesn't make it homogenized. Let's keep its individual essence ... without getting lost. Preservation is important, but not ghettoized and not homogenized [that] is the challenge."

He sees himself on a biological mission of sorts, spreading what he called the "virus" of other cultures to the mainstream. Ma credited rocker Peter Gabriel's WOMAD festivals and Real World label for bringing people of the world together through music. But he said the mission is just beginning and will take time to work its way into the culture at large.

"You can do this respectfully and [in a way that] doesn't completely inundate, change or destroy the culture," Ma said. "It's easy to destroy, but it's hard to build something up. I think the work is about building up things in a reasonable way in reasonable time lines."

He hopes that the project will not merely locate local artists and bring them together for concerts, but foster something that will inspire a new generation of musicians to create lines of communication, using modern communications like the Internet.

"I'm hoping if I were a high-school kid and doing a world history report, I can go read articles on our [forthcoming] Web site... [become] fascinated by Asian music and be able to contact these people," Ma said.

"[Look at the] way public schools gave us [Leonard] Bernstein. We don't have that system anymore. ... If Ravel and Debussy hadn't gone to those Paris Exhibitions and seen the [Balinese] Gamelan it completely changed their lives. One expo, one meeting. ... What nets can we cast now to develop cultural literacy is the question we're trying to wrestle with [here]."

Within his own life, Ma has other questions he wrestles with. The cellist, who turned 45 last month, spoke about maintaining the maturity that comes with age while still fostering the idealism of his youth.

"I think music will always be a force of social change, especially in our lives," Ma said. "We can't escape that we are going to be 45, that our friends our dying, the passing of generations all the horrible things in the rites of passage. But music gives us comfort. You so much want to say something and a piece of music can do that. ... Of course there are different realms where music can make a difference, socially and politically. I tend to the expression of inner life. You go to the [Mississippi] Delta and hear the blues it has sustained a lot of people."

In addition to launching the Silk Road Project and keeping up with his busy recording schedule Ma continues to tour incessantly. He began a nine-day tour of Japan Nov. 1; and his upcoming U.S. dates include Nov. 20 at New York's Carnegie Hall, Nov. 29 at Boston Symphony Hall, Dec. 3 at Davies Symphony Hall in San Francisco and Dec. 5 at Washington, D.C.'s Kennedy Center.

"Some days I think silence is really good," Ma said with a sigh when he thought of all the work ahead of him. Given his work habits, those days must be few and far between.